Fear grips Donetsk as Ukraine’s forces vow to crush pariah rebels

Kiev and rebels urge Donetsk residents to flee after deadly shelling

A local resident looks at an apartment building damaged by rocket fire  in Donetsk yesterday. Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

A local resident looks at an apartment building damaged by rocket fire in Donetsk yesterday. Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 01:01

Sunlight flashed on the water as two fishermen cast their lines, and a swimmer strode from the sandy shore into the river that slides lazily through Donetsk – three people seeking a moment of calm in a city living in fear.

Along the flower-lined waterfront, locals strolled and then sipped coffee on a cafe terrace, surrounded by the strange emptiness that is spreading through eastern Ukraine’s industrial capital.

The sun blazing yesterday over a city that was formerly home to a million people rose to the boom of artillery in the suburbs, just as Monday began with shells hitting a residential area by the main train station and killing at least four people.

Two summers after it helped host the European football championship, Donetsk is traversed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers driven by pro-Russian rebels, who are increasingly edgy as government forces close in.

The heavily armed militants whose checkpoints guard approaches to the city also tear through its semi-deserted streets in their cars, which include luxury models without number plates allegedly stolen from showrooms and terrified owners.

The rebels, who reject Ukraine’s pro-EU government and want its eastern regions to join Russia, are now the only authority in Donetsk, where the police have vanished and the elected mayor and the Kiev-appointed governor have fled.

Men in masks

A hub of mining and industry where people prided themselves on hard work, order and discipline – even while violent organised crime flourished – operates by the law of the gun, enforced by men in masks known only by noms de guerre.

No official figures exist on how many people have fled Donetsk and nearby towns caught between the rebels and increasingly aggressive government forces, but trains and buses out of the region have been packed for weeks. The exodus has only accelerated with the deadly shelling of recent days.

There are no food shortages but prices for most items are creeping up and, though gas and electricity supplies to Donetsk are stable, a major utilities firm warned on Monday that damage to pumping stations meant Donetsk only had enough drinking water for five days.

Many banks have closed down, including all branches in largely rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Privat Bank, Ukraine’s largest lender, which belongs to billionaire oligarch and staunch government supporter Igor Kolomoisky.

“I’m getting threatening letters from Privat Bank because I haven’t made my loan payments,” said Seryoga, a miner from Shakhtyorsk outside Donetsk city.

“But Privat has closed down in our town. I asked them what I should do, because I want to pay, and they told me to take my money to a branch in Dnepropetrovsk – that’s 300km away!”